Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Penders out as UH basketball coach

Claiming that he succeeded in what he came to the University of Houston to do - get the Cougars back in the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament after an 18-year absence - head coach Tom Penders announced his resignation yesterday. The 64-year-old coach, whose Cougars lost to Maryland in the first round of the Big Dance on Friday, leaves after six years and a 121-77 record at Houston.

It's a bit surprising in that the conventional wisdom among many UH faithful, myself included, was that his team's amazing run through the Conference USA Tournament and its first appearance in March Madness since 1992 would result in Penders' return as head coach for at least one more season. And, while Penders insists that the decision to resign was his alone, there's plenty of speculation that he was actually asked to resign by UH Athletics Director Mark Rhoades, either because Rhoades had already made up his mind during the team's mediocre and inconsistent 15-15 regular season or because he took offense to Penders' participation in a rather unflattering (and in many cases completely inaccurate) depiction of the UH basketball program and its facilities in the New York Times.

At any rate, it doesn't really matter why Tom Penders left. All that matters is that he took the program as far as he could take it: from "completely miserable" under the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude to "fair-to-middlin'" today. As the Chronicle's Richard Justice explains:

Few Division I coaches had less to work with than Penders in terms of facilities, budget and attendance. Penders pushed that part of his story in recent weeks, probably as he felt the walls closing in on him.

He left out the part about him doing a terrible job recruiting local high school talent and not winning enough games, but who wants to spoil a nice going-away party with facts?

Beating UTEP should not qualify as a signature victory at the University of Houston, but who knows anymore?

Guess how long it has been since UH won an NCAA Tournament game. If you answered 26 years, you’d be right.

For a bonus question, guess how many weeks UH has been in the Associated Press Top 25 these last 26 years? Two.

For a fanbase as fair-weather as Houston's and an alumni base as apathetic as UH's, that's just not going to get it done. Maybe it's asking too much, but it is what it is. I do believe Penders left the basketball program in better condition than he found it, and I hope he does well in his next endeavor. But now it is time for somebody else to pick up where "Turnaround Tom" left off, and take the program to the next level. With more on-campus housing being built and a facilities improvement study underway, it might just be possible.

Late word this evening is that UH womens' basketball coach Joe Curl is also retiring. Curl, who notched a 193-167 record in 12 seasons at UH, had been battling heart issues over the last few years and is stepping down for health reasons. Having met Curl in person on a few occasions, I can say that he is a great guy. I wish him the best.

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